15. The Problem Tells You Where to Search
For a couple of months now, I’ve been chasing after the Big Idea that I can’t put into words – the one that I glimpsed in the distance when I read Don Mikulecky’s article about Robert Rosen, “The Well-Posed Question and its Answer – Why Are Organisms Different from Machines?” That’s where I first got the news – new to me, though not to scientists – that people were out there overturning the Newtonian world-view. It seems that the notion of radically re-imagining the nature of Nature isn’t confined to humanists like myself; it’s also coming from a completely different direction. Possibly a confluence is in the making.
We fly out to California to visit Vaughn’s two sons and hang out with family. While we’re in Oakland, the Red Sox win the pennant, and my nephew Josh gives me a copy of yet another terrific book, this one about Chicago, called Nature’s Metropolis, by William Cronon. On the plane home, I read some chapters that echo everything Richard White had to say in The Organic Machine. “The central ambiguity flows from the old dilemma about whether human beings are inside or outside of nature. . . . my deepest intellectual agenda in this book is to suggest that the boundary between human and nonhuman, natural and unnatural, is profoundly problematic.” (xix)
An article appears in the New York Times Magazine about water shortage in the West; everything the article talks about was predicted by Worster and Reisner. Though there’s a promising effort underway to recycle wastewater, and this makes a ton of sense, everything else in the article says that’s only a way of slightly slowing down the inevitable. Simultaneously, the drought in the Southeast has reached crisis proportions. Atlanta is constantly in the news; its main reservoir, Lake Lanier, is receding to levels not seen in decades. The last time it was this low was in 1981. In 1980, 2.2 million people lived in the metropolitan Atlanta area; the population of the same area passed 4 million in 2000. Over three million people now depend on Lake Lanier. There’s a ban on outdoor watering. Governor Sonny Perdue is in Washington appealing to President Bush for emergency relief, suing the Corps of Engineers over how much water is released from Lake Lanier for use downstream, carrying on Georgia’s 17-year-old water war with Alabama and Florida. A friend in Athens, Georgia, sends me clippings from the local paper about how the Middle Oconee River (the city’s water supply) has dropped to a record low. Another friend sends a link to a story about a town in Kentucky that has entirely run out of water and has to truck some in so that the faucets can be turned on for three hours a day. If solving this problem were like putting men on the moon, that would be the easy way out. There is no technical fix for demanding more water than there is to be had, but as usual, people don’t want to believe that. Of course we should create a better infrastructure, like the wastewater recycling system they’re talking about for Las Vegas, but it won’t ultimately solve the problem that is starkly visible when officials in Georgia deny that this water shortage means economic development will have to slow down. Again a large piece of the puzzle appears to be our imagination. We have to evolve into a new consensus about reality.
I e-mail my friend David:
The more I work on this stuff, the more it seems to me beyond question that there is no dividing line between us and nature. That if we have created a hybrid nature, this hybridity is our natural world. There is no binary, no easy dichotomy. The messiness of this situation is not by any means all bad; it is an opportunity as well as a big fat problem. I think, and this is what I’m beginning to see myself searching for and photographing when I leave the house, that we (many of us, not all) are failing to take advantage of great opportunities to recognize that we live in a hybrid environment which, contrary to popular wisdom, is not divorced from nature. I suspect part of the reason for this failure to notice is the binary way of thinking which says either we live in the city or we live in nature. So in the city, nature is the not-this, and this means we don’t expect there to be any other possibility. It’s like, come here and resign yourself to it: no nature here. But in actuality, I think this is not true. What counts as nature is an important question.
That’s Maturana and Varela peeking through: we create the circumstances we believe ourselves to be facing. We make the mental map, we label parts of it “nature” and “not nature,” and we have the capacity to change the labels by what we do with language, together. Isn’t that exactly what Cronon and White and Worster must believe, in order to be writing their books?
I find a website run by Robert Rosen’s daughter, dedicated to his work (he having died in 1998). On it there is a still more lucky find: his autobiographical reminiscences. They make it very clear that Rosen was smarter than 99.9% of all human beings, he knew it, and he always went his own way. From early on in life, he had one big question he needed to answer – what makes living things alive? – and he let the problem guide him in what he needed to learn. His work refused to fall into a category. A colleague once said to him, “The trouble with you, Rosen, is that you keep trying to answer questions nobody wants to ask.” His commentary: “This is doubtless true. But I have no option in this; and in any event, the questions themselves are real, and will not go away by virtue of not being addressed.”
After that, I’ve got to read Rosen’s book Life Itself – or the parts of it that I can understand. English majors don’t learn set theory and information theory, much less the kind of math Rosen uses (the theory of categories), which he says some mathematicians don’t even regard as mathematics. Regardless of the way Rosen makes his argument, what he is up to seems clear. He’s using mathematics as a rigorous way of thinking about thinking, so that he can prove, in the end, that there is not nearly enough causation in the Newtonian worldview to enable us to think about life. There’s infinitely more to the book, much more than I’m equipped to appreciate, but this is enough to work with.
In the Amazon listing for Life Itself, I notice that it is cited in a book called Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective, by Robert Ulanowicz. For some reason, that rings a bell – why? The author’s unusual name? Something makes me think “I’ve seen that title before.” I dig through my notes and printouts, and in the citations of the article called “The Ecosystemic Life Hypothesis,” there it is. A couple of months have passed since the first time I saw it. Aha, I think, the circle is closing. Two things that seem really significant connect to the same book. It looks like I’d better read it.
Ulanowicz’s book starts with exactly what I tried to talk about in the car on the way to Bangor – the history of science since the Enlightenment – and it ends with a chapter on “how the combined visions of Karl Popper and Robert Rosen could lead us into the next century” (143). The process of research is working. How it works remains a secret, but it appears empirically true that when a human mind focuses hard enough, for a long enough time, the necessary materials for thought will somehow be attracted to it.
Over the course of a month or more of working with these ideas and letting them sink in, a clearer picture begins to swim into view.
Now I can do a somewhat better job of Western Science on Fast Forward than I could when I was trying to tell it to Vaughn in the car on the way to Bangor. It still starts, of course, with the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon, and “experimental philosophy.” The revolutionary force of a thoroughly empirical, materialist world-view with one goal in sight: to run the world. “Now . . . we are thrall unto [nature] in necessity,” Bacon said, “but if we would be led by her in invention, we should command her by action.” Forget the received wisdom, in other words; experiment, discover for yourself, and seize control of the nature that so far has always dominated man.
A hundred and fifty years pass. On to Scene Two: Newton’s vision of mechanically interacting particles — undoubtedly correct within its original field of application — becomes the universal explanation. “Like wildfire, the Newtonian way of regarding natural phenomena invaded and transformed all the physical sciences” – chemistry, electricity, magnetism, geology. (Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective p. 17)
The extreme outer limit of faith in this worldview is summed up in what is known as Laplace’s demon: if some supernatural creature could know the position and momentum of every particle in the universe at a given moment, then by making use of Newton’s physics he could predict every event in the future, or reverse the arrow of time (because Newton’s laws work equally well in both directions) and know every previous interaction, thus “hindcast all of history.” A Newtonian world is entirely deterministic. “Somehow endowed with motion, the world was compelled to play out its script in clockwork fashion.” (EAP p. 148)
Newton’s physics (and thank heavens I took physics in high school, or I’d be out of luck) is basically about objects in motion. The object, classically, would be represented in a simplified way as an abstract particle occupying a single point, but having mass. It possesses a position and a velocity. Forces from without act upon it; the particle initiates nothing. Think cannonball leaving cannon. What Newtonian physics tells you – and, Rosen argues, all it can tell you – is that when you know the state of the cannonball at one instant, and you apply the laws of physics, then you know what its state will be in the next instant. At time T, the first instant, you know the cannonball’s position and velocity, and the gravitational force on it. (If you’re being thorough, you also take into account the friction of its passage through the air.) Apply the laws of motion and you know its position and velocity at time T+1. There is only this much causation in Newton’s world: the state of the particle at time T entails (is necessarily succeeded by) its state at time T+1, a vanishingly small instant later. By keeping track of an unbroken succession of instants, each entailing the next, you can account for what happens to that particle in a pinball-machine world of mechanistic interactions. Newton, being also smarter than 99.9% of all human beings, not only formulated his laws of motion but invented calculus in order to make this accounting possible. Our phenomenal mastery of things mechanical is testimony that he got it right.
What you must do, then, to understand a complex system in Newtonian terms is to break it down into small enough parts so that they can be seen in this way. Rosen’s point is that we cannot possibly understand life in terms of mechanical interactions alone. Living things possess crucial attributes or capabilities, the “functional components” that first came up in chapter 7, which exist because of the organism’s structure, its configuration. They cannot be isolated in one location or separated out from the organism as a whole. These functional components are as real as, or more real than, the organism’s physical parts (Mikulecky says this is one of Rosen’s major insights). Among these functional components is the organism’s capacity for self-repair, and the repair function, like other functional components, is self-replicating. The organism constantly works on itself. The basic aliveness of the organism thus depends on closed causal loops (shades of Maruyama), utterly different from the straight linear progression from T to T+1.
Because of their limited, linear causality, Rosen calls mechanical (Newtonian) systems “simple” systems, and for certain, not all systems are simple. Organisms are “complex” in a special sense of the word: you cannot fully represent the workings of a complex system by any one model. More Maruyama: complexity requires you to adopt the poly-ocular approach.
Complexity is the property of a real world system that is manifest in the inability of any one formalism being adequate to capture all its properties. It requires that we find distinctly different ways of interacting with systems. Distinctly different in the sense that when we make successful models, the formal systems needed to describe each distinct aspect are NOT derivable from each other. (Mikulecky)
The mission of Rosen’s book Life Itself is to demonstrate that we can never account for everything about an organism mechanistically. And this is not because we need to improve our ability to observe and analyze, and quantify every variable at once, and somehow solve all the equations simultaneously. No matter how much we sharpen the focus, we’ll never get the full picture that way. An organism, or an ecosystem, is different in the kind of causality it involves, which is why the mechanistic analysis must fall short.
So if the Newtonian picture doesn’t contain enough causation, then what is “enough”? Rosen and Ulanowicz both argue that science needs to admit the validity of all of Aristotle’s four kinds of causation: material, efficient, formal, and final. The canonical example of these is to ask, What causes a house?
The material cause of a house is lumber, shingles, windowpanes, electrical wire, fixtures, water pipes, etc. – all the physical stuff it’s made out of.
The efficient cause of a house is carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, etc. – the doers who take the stuff and make it into a building.
The formal cause of a house is the design, the pattern, the notion of its structure that becomes the architect’s plans.
The final cause of a house is that someone intended to have a place to live. The final cause is like the answer to the question “Why is there a house in the first place?” whereas the other causes are more like answers to “How is there a house?”
Or, as an alternative example, take the game of baseball.
Material cause: balls, bats, gloves, grass, dirt, bases, warning track, the rolled-up tarp in foul territory that a player might trip over, padding on the outfield wall, etc. – all the physical stuff players actually use.
Efficient cause: players, umpires, managers, coaches.
Formal cause: the rules of the game. The fact that it’s always 90 feet from home to first. The shape and size of the particular ballpark. Anything that is a parameter rather than a stuff to be used.
Final cause: Why is there baseball in the first place? Maybe because people love games.
As Rosen says, “The whole thrust of the old Aristotelian analysis of causation is to make it manifest that no one mode of causal entailment suffices to understand anything. At root, this is because the causal categories do not entail each other.” (132) Having a set of blueprints for a house doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to construct one; having carpentry skills doesn’t necessarily mean you possess the vision of an overall design. Having either one doesn’t automatically bring you the materials, etc. This echoes the definition of complexity: material cause and formal cause, to name two, are different in kind; the complex system of a house, or of baseball, requires both understandings of what’s going on.
The concept of final cause is the real outlier in the context of Newtonian science – and final cause is perhaps the protagonist of Rosen’s book. It has been categorically ruled out of science, and Rosen is determined to argue it back in. The reason it’s ruled out is that it involves intentionality; or, to put it another way, final cause involves the future acting upon the present. And clearly, if the only admissible causation is that a state at time T entails a successive state at time T+1, there is no way the future can have any effect on the present at all.
This is not just a philosophical curiosity, because the notion of an organism having a functional component involves final cause. Take the case of the circulatory system and its regulation of blood pressure (a functional component that can’t be localized): why does it exist? Because the organism needs it; because if the blood pressure got too high or too low it would die. The system is what Rosen would call “anticipatory,” and there’s no place for that in classical physics. This would seem like a strong piece of evidence that the Newtonian explanation doesn’t give us enough equipment to understand biology.
Or, from a different angle: in the Newtonian world you have two basic entities, the object and its environment. Forces are ascribed to the environment; the object is pushed around by them. By itself, the particle does nothing (Newton’s first law: in the absence of outside forces, an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will keep moving in the same direction at the same velocity). By contrast, when the organism repairs itself, as viable organisms do, it is the efficient cause of itself. All that the environment contributes is the material cause: that which the organism’s metabolism takes in and uses to support life.
And so? Why does all this matter? Because Western culture has for a long time tacitly assumed that Newton’s physics is the universal description of the physical reality we live in, the essence of how it works. That assumption is the foundation of the belief that human beings can, and thus should, absolutely control nature. If Robert Rosen, or anybody else, can not just assert but demonstrate that the Newtonian paradigm is only a special case, and if we can get this through our heads, it has the potential to totally alter our relationship with nature, and possibly even with ourselves.
There are lots of echoes here. Maybe the most resonant for me is that when Rosen demonstrates that the organism is the efficient cause of itself, it goes all the way back to Donald Worster talking about how we have to learn to accept that a river is “an entity unto itself, with its own processes, dynamics, and values.” It reminds me of autopoiesis, and the autonomy of the organism in Maturana and Varela, or of Horkheimer and Adorno: “Domination . . . springs from a hostility and an alienation that cannot tolerate the otherness of nature” (Worster’s paraphrase). It brings up Magoroh Maruyama and the “H” (hierarchical) mindscape, which is of a piece with the Newtonian paradigm and the belief that we can control nature. The “H” mindscape is buttressed by what was long assumed to be the scientific method. What if it’s not the method anymore? Can we move on to “S” or “G”?
When Rosen talks about how reductionism fails to describe a living, complex system – how you can never produce a model of the whole by putting together any number of Newtonian mechanisms – it’s a lot like Richard White saying of our thinking about the Columbia River, “Our tendency to break it into parts does not work.”
When Rosen says “no one mode of causal entailment suffices to understand anything,” it’s like what Maruyama calls “poly-ocularity” – an attribute of the “S” or “G” mindscape: the ability and predilection to look at a situation from multiple points of view, to assume that many people’s different truths are going to be needed in order to understand it well enough. And this, in turn, is the method I’m trying to follow. Do I know where all this work on Maturana and Varela, or Robert Rosen, is going to take me? Do I know it’s going to turn out to have been worthwhile? Of course not. But the ethic of the whole project is, try to understand, try to keep bringing the disparate parts together, and as Rosen would say, let the problem tell you how to proceed.